Saturday, August 15, 2009

class, history, and the LGBT movement

I've just read (yeah, I'm behind, again) an interview Charlotte Abbott did with Martin Duberman in the Advocate last month.

A new book by Martin Duberman is always a major event, and since the pioneering gay historian has just received a lifetime achievement award from the Publishing Triangle’s LGBT book industry professionals, it’s an excellent time to join him in reviewing the past 25 years in Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985-2008.Set in New York City against a rolling backdrop of George H.W. Bush’s inaction on AIDS, Bill Clinton’s gaffes on gays in the military, and the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the books focuses on the surprisingly moving and dramatic story of the struggle to build the country’s first undergraduate LGBT studies department at the City University of New York.

Alive with incisive political reflections, personal soul-searching, and plenty of gossipy asides about his academic and political rivalries, Waiting to Land picks up the story Duberman began in Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey, about coming out before 1970 and choosing to live openly as a gay man, and Midlife Queer: Autobiography of a Decade, 1971-1981, about channeling the excitement of gay liberation into a national political agenda. With an engaging mix of heated diary entries, letter excerpts, and straightforward narration written in 2008, it binds together the strands of his life as an activist academic and author or editor of more than 20 books (including Stonewall, the basis for the 1995 movie about the Greenwich Village uprising, and Paul Robeson, a biography of African-American actor and activist). The result is a gripping glimpse into the inner life of a gay man who has dedicated himself to making a difference for gay people of all backgrounds and a cautionary tale about idealism’s limits in a hierarchical and conformist culture...

I read it because Charlotte pulled this quote: "The LGBT movement is not aware of class, and the class-based left-wing movement is not aware of us." So very true. And then, when I read it, I was struck by this: "The university contributed nothing to our effort except a few in-kind services, so it took us five years, from 1986 to 1991, to raise the $50,000 we needed. From the beginning, we did a lot of public events where we’d explain our situation and pass the hat. Everyone on our early board was an activist. But right down to the present day, a lot of wealthy people don’t associate scholarship with activism, even though there are many ways that two work together."

Words, books, scholarship change the world. They are often what trigger the boots-on-the-street, the sense of injustice that provokes citizens to action. Books, words, scholarship are what help us understand and imagine a more just world. They are vital.

But you're probably tired of hearing me talk about that, so I'll say, instead, that this interview reminds me of how quickly political groups become insular. We focus on Our Primary Issues (homophobia, say, or racism, or access) and we forget about other issues which apply to other parts of our lives (racism, say, or access, or homophobia).

I'm taking a keen interest now in the quiltbag community's response to these things because I'm working with the Lambda Literary Foundation. It's now part of my job to make sure LLF doesn't fall into any ruts, traps, or assumptions, that we stay nimble and flexible. That we grow and change and learn. That we not only respond but lead. I'll be relying on all of you to help. But, eh, more about all that later.

For now, take a look at the interview. Go buy the book. We all need to refresh our consciousness every so often.

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